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Joint Press Conference On the Merida Initiative High-Level Consultative Group

Secretary Condoleezza Rice
Loy Henderson Conference Room
Washington, DC
December 19, 2008

Guest: Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa

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SECRETARY RICE: Hello, good morning. Today, Secretary Gates, Attorney General Mukasey, Deputy Secretary Schneider, Director Walters and I gathered together with many senior U.S. Government officials and we met with our Mexican counterparts to review the common threat that we face from drug trafficking and transnational crime. Our meeting, what we call the Merida Initiative High-Level Consultative Group, has its immediate origins in the meeting between President Bush and President Calderon in Merida, Mexico, in March 2007. At that time, President Bush and President Calderon highlighted the serious threat that criminal organizations and drug traffickers pose to both our countries and the need for strong collaborative action.

In Merida, the United States and Mexico have reaffirmed a commitment to enhanced partnership, cooperation, training, assistance, information sharing, built on the premise that we have a shared responsibility to confront these criminals and protect our citizens, and that success requires increased cooperation.

In our discussions today, we have had a full and useful exchange on how we can enhance our cooperation, take steps needed to break the power and impunity of the drug-trafficking organizations, and how we can facilitate implementation of projects under the Merida Initiative.

Let me close by underscoring once again that our U.S.-Mexico partnership is indispensible, not just to meet the threat posed by these criminal organizations, but also to ensure more broadly that our citizens can share a future that is secure and prosperous in our democratic states that are neighbors and friends.

I want to thank the members of the Mexican delegation who joined us, and now I will turn the floor to Ambassador Patricia Espinosa, Foreign Secretary.

FOREIGN SECRETARY ESPINOSA: I don’t know (inaudible) speak in Spanish?

(Via interpreter.) Very well. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, friends, members of the press corps. As Secretary Rice has stated, this morning, high-level representatives of the U.S. and Mexican governments have met in order to hold a first policy meeting to provide follow-up to the Merida Initiative. I would like to underscore that the level of this delegation is clear proof of the priority that both their governments have placed upon this initiative. The meeting has been extremely productive and valuable. The Merida Initiative, as Secretary Rice has said, is a system of bilateral cooperation that will allow both countries – that is, in fact, already allowing both countries to expand their exchange in terms of combating organized crime.

And in the meeting that we held this morning, it was made evident that apart from the transfer of equipment within the Merida Initiative, the system that has been agreed upon under this initiative has allowed for interaction, for cooperation, at an unprecedented level in our bilateral relationship. This initiative is based on the principles of shared responsibility, of mutual trust, and respect for the laws of both countries. This is an initiative that presents a great opportunity, so that together Mexico and the United States can be more effective in addressing what is a shared threat, and that is transnational organized crime. The drug market leads to crimes in money laundering, in precursor chemicals, in weapons trafficking, in corruption, and a growing level of violence that affects our societies on both sides of the border. And that is why we are committed to fully attacking this problem jointly with great determination.

This initiative contains actions that each country carries out within their territory. And this was a very interesting point in our meeting, and that is regarding the actions being carried out by both sides, and as well as actions that are based on bilateral cooperation. So then this is a formidable challenge that both countries are addressing in decisive fashion. It has been a complex procedure in terms of technical and policy consultations in the last – or in the recent months between teams from both countries, and this has allowed for greater coordination. We have no doubts on our side within the Mexican Government that this is an initiative that will continue to produce positive results. It is our wish that the follow-up to this initiative continue at this high level, and not just at the technical level, but there should also be a permanent high-level follow-up process.

So once again, Secretary Rice, I want to thank you for your support throughout all of these months. I would also like to thank the entire U.S. delegation that has worked with us on this very important project.

MR. MCCORMACK: Two questions per side. Let’s start with Arshad Mohammed from Reuters.

QUESTION: Secretary Rice, as you are aware, Hamas yesterday said it was unilaterally ending its ceasefire in Gaza after six months. I wonder, one, what you think about that statement and whether you would like to see it restored; and, secondly, whether you are concerned that an end – or a resumption of the violence in Gaza or between Gaza and Israel will make it harder for the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas to continue their negotiations.

SECRETARY RICE: Well, if ever there is a clear differentiator between Mahmoud Abbas, President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas, it’s this constant threat of violence. Because after all, Hamas needs to concentrate on turning away from violence. A renewed threat of violence against Israel is going to do nothing for the people of Gaza except deepen their misery which has been imposed by Hamas as it is.

And so I sincerely hope that there will not be a resumption of the violence because that is not going to help the people of Gaza, it’s not going to help Palestinians; it’s not going to help the Palestinian cause. That’s been very clearly stated by the international community, which has talked about the importance of renouncing violence. And the only way that the Palestinian people are going to reach their aspirations for statehood is through negotiation, and that’s why President Abbas has the support of the international community and, by the way, the Arab states as well.

QUESTION: But doesn't the violence make the negotiations even harder?

SECRETARY RICE: I think that it’s very clear that the people who are going to deliver for the Palestinian people are the people who have renounced violence, and that’s the Palestinian Authority and President Abbas. All that Hamas is going to do is to deliver deeper misery by trying to resume violence. And that’s why the international community supports President Abbas.

QUESTION: Jose Lopez Zamorano de Notimex. (Inaudible) on both sides over the border, so how worried are you that these incidents actually become more serious in the U.S.? And secondly, to what extent do you think that this violence and instances of corruption could actually hamper the next U.S. Government’s ability to cooperate effectively with Mexico against organized crime?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, what the Merida Initiative really says is that this is a joint problem and a joint responsibility. We have enormous respect for President Calderon and what his government is trying to do with this scourge of organized crime and drug trafficking and all of the associated problems that it brings.

Yes, the United States is concerned about what is going on on our side of the border, but we had a very interesting presentation today from our office – National Office of Drug Control Policy which talked about the U.S. responsibility also to work on the supply – on the demand side, so that there is not demand for this product. And we consider that part of our responsibility. But the law enforcement cooperation, the information sharing, the training, the resources, this is all a joint effort to deal with a problem that neighbors have, that friends have, and that’s the way that we see it. And we think it makes the imperative for cooperation greater, not less.

MR. MCCORMACK: Next question to Jordi Zamora from AFP.

QUESTION: Yes. Miss Secretary, I’d like to follow this (inaudible) summit in Brazil. One of the proposals of the Latin American countries was to sort of set up a new regional body which could be a new one sidelining somehow the OAS. I’d like – if you would like to comment on that.

SECRETARY RICE: Would you like to comment also? Yes. If you want to start – you were there, so why don’t you.

FOREIGN SECRETARY ESPINOSA: (Via interpreter.) Okay. Well, I would like to comment that the idea of creating an organization that would include the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean -- well, the purpose of that is to strengthen the process of integration that has been taking place in the region under various approaches, a sub-regional approach. The fact is, when we look at the scene worldwide, we see that there are regional integration systems in practically all of the regions of the world. In Africa, we have the African Union. In Europe, we have the European Union. In Asia, we have several integration processes in place there. So this is an initiative whose intent is to strengthen the region’s position vis-à-vis other regions of the world to make our region more competitiveness. That is how Mexico sees this initiative, and that’s why Mexico is taking part in pushing for this initiative.

And by the way, it’s not an initiative that is exclusive. This is an initiative whose aim is to strengthen our position, to strengthen the region’s position in the process of dialogue and cooperation with other regions of the world. In fact, we have the real group as a basis; a building block that we feel should lead us to a greater level of institutionality.

It is a process that is only beginning to move forward. It hasn’t been clearly defined how this system will evolve. But in fact, looking at the OAS, we are sure that greater integration and a greater understanding between the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean will serve to contribute – to strengthen the OAS proper.

SECRETARY RICE: (Inaudible) that the OAS remains the regional organization in which all parts of the region participate. And I think we have worked very hard to strengthen it, and it will continue to be strengthened. It is the organization that can act, as it did, for instance, in Haiti when it was needed to have the support of the United States, Canada, several countries, including Brazil, which led the UN mission. And so I don’t think that one needs to think of other organizations somehow that may emerge as a threat to the OAS. There are increasingly overlapping regional organizations. If one looks at the work that we do here in North America, we are very much active here as a North American group, but that doesn’t mean that we ignore the rest of the Western Hemisphere.

And if you look even at some cross-regional groups that are very important, APEC, which brings together the Pacific Rim of Latin America and the Western Hemisphere with Asia, is an institution that is very strong. And so I don’t one needs to think of any of this as exclusive, but rather, as the increasing need for countries to cooperate across boundaries, and you’re going to have many different regional groupings that do that.

QUESTION: (Via interpreter.) -- from the magazine Power and Business.

(In English) -- (Inaudible) like the Barat 50, which were – these weapons were banned in the United States until 2004 when President Bush declined to renew that ban, which was going on for ten years. My question to Secretary Rice is: Have you made President Bush aware of the direct connection between the expiration of the assault weapons ban and the proliferation of these powerful weapons in Mexico? And have you ever suggested to him that it was a bad idea not to renew the ban?

(Via interpreter.) And for the Mexican Secretary of Foreign Relations, in the spirit of shared responsibility that you mentioned, did you address the issue or the need that the U.S. should impose this ban on the sale of high-caliber weapons?

SECRETARY RICE: You know, it’s very interesting. I follow arms trafficking across the world, and I’ve never known illegal arms traffickers who cared very much about the law. And so I simply don’t accept the notion that the lifting of the ban somehow has led arms traffickers to increase their activities. Arms traffickers, by their very nature, don’t care about the law. And so whatever laws are in place, their business is to get around it.

And I’ll tell you, I know a lot about this area because it’s not just in the region, but it’s worldwide that this is the case. That is why the way to deal with the kinds of arms that are being trafficked by people who are doing it illegally, literally against the law, is to work through intelligence, to work through our law enforcement people, but also to make sure that we have sharing of intelligence across the border.

I would just note that we had a very good presentation by our bureau of ATF, arms trafficking and alcohol and arms trafficking control. And it was about our concerns about the increasing capability to acquire some of these weapons that are indeed very serious. But I think it would be a mistake to assume that arms traffickers care very much about what laws the United States has in place.

QUESTION: So you don’t see this connection?

SECRETARY RICE: Actually, you know, I haven’t done – since I’ve not done – I’m a social scientist. And since I haven’t done a formal study of the variable that you mention and the outcomes that you mention, I’m not going to comment. But I will tell you I’ve never known an illegal arms trafficker who cared very much what the laws were.

FOREIGN SECRETARY ESPINOSA: (Via interpreter.)On our side, the work during the last two years since President Calderon’s administration began, we’ve had a very clear effort to get those weapons off the street, to get those weapons off of the hands of these organized crime groups. And the numbers that we’ve had in terms of seizures, and in fact, I want to mention that we have had a growing cooperation with the U.S. authorities, and those numbers are very eloquent as far as speaking as – to the effectiveness of exchanging information, exchanging intelligence, of working on this jointly. This has all been very productive. Obviously, if the U.S. side – if there were a legislative decision to adopt an initiative like that, we would obviously be very attentive to that. But obviously, we would always respect the sovereignty and independence of the U.S. Government at all its levels.

QUESTION: A follow-up question, please?


SECRETARY RICE: Thank you. You’re welcome.


Released on December 19, 2008

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